Dubbed "Speed Dressing," the ad depicts two hormonally charged teens, at times in as little as their underwear, practicing how quickly they can get in and out of their clothes in order to have some frisky fun before a parent takes notice. The spot ends with the supertitle "Today's the day to get away with it."
Making the viral rounds
Just who is responsible for creation of the ad -- which has spread like wildfire on the internet, garnering nearly 16,000 views on YouTube in less than 24 hours -- is a bit cloudy as credits list talent from the retailer's agency of record, Saatchi & Saatchi, as well as production house Epoch Films, New York.
"No one at JC Penney was aware of the ad or participated in the creation of it in any way," the retailer said in a statement. "The commercial was never broadcast, but rather was created by a former employee at JC Penney's advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, solely as an award submission without JC Penney's knowledge or prior approval."
Credits for the work list former Saatchi staffer Mike Long, the spot's director; Saatchi creative Kerry Keenan; Saatchi Chief Creative Officer Gerry Graf; and former Chief Operating Officer Tony Granger, who is now global creative head of WPP Group's Y&R. The latter has already distanced himself from the debacle.
"I was very close to JC Penney, and was part of a team that was focused on making JC Penney a 'lovemark' with Middle America," Mr. Granger told AdAge.com, referring to his former boss Kevin Roberts' book, "Lovemarks." "The work we created had an honesty to it that made it charming and inspirational. 'Speed Dressing' is a fun idea, but isn't appropriate for the brand. I would not have presented it, neither would any of the team. I resigned from Saatchi in October 2007 and have no dealings with the brand since then."
Saatchi apologized for the spot and blamed Epoch in a statement. "Saatchi & Saatchi has a long history of producing principled and respectful advertising for JC Penney and its entire client roster. The 'Speed Dressing' TV commercial, which was submitted to the 2008 International Advertising Festival at Cannes, was created by a third-party vendor without JC Penney's knowledge or consent. It was produced and released to the public without any knowledge or prior approval from JC Penney. Saatchi & Saatchi did not enter the spot and deeply regrets the message this ad presents."
An Epoch Films representative declined to comment and referred any calls back to Saatchi.
Takes home bronze Lion
That the award, which documents show was entered into the show by Epoch, won a Bronze Lion in the film category in Cannes last week apparently didn't soften the blow for the retailer, which had this to say in a statement: "JC Penney was deeply disappointed to learn that our name and logo were used in the creation and distribution of a commercial that was submitted to the 2008 International Advertising Festival at Cannes...JC Penney does not approve or condone its content."
Now the question becomes whether this snafu could sour the charmed romance begun when Mr. Roberts, Saatchi's top executive, caught the eye of JC Penney with his "Lovemarks" concept, and in August 2006 convinced the retailer to shift its massive marketing account from longtime agency DDB, Chicago, part of Omnicom Group, to the Publicis Groupe agency.
The retailer spent a total of $474 million on domestic measured media last year.
To be sure, the retailer has hit hard times, reporting a 50% decrease in net income during the first quarter. Sales during the period fell 5.1% to $4.1 billion, while sales at stores open at least a year fell 7.4%.
One area which the retailer has cited as performing up to snuff is the American Living platform. The ambitious advertising push for that launch -- the biggest in the retailer's history -- was handled by Polo Ralph Lauren's Global Brand Concepts division, however, not Saatchi.
JC Penney declined to comment beyond its prepared statement, directing all calls to Saatchi. Last week, rather than attend Cannes, Saatchi's Mary Baglivo, CEO and chair of the Americas region, and Mr. Graf were in Texas for meetings with the marketer.
And despite the retailer's wrath, some insiders insist the pair isn't headed for a break. JC Penney Chief Marketing Officer Mike Boylson told the Wall Street Journal it was having a "serious discussion" with the firm, but that the company's relationship with them "is beyond the scope of this one incident."
For its part, it's unclear if the festival plans to take any action; Cannes representatives did not respond to inquiries for comment. Craig Davis, chief creative officer worldwide, JWT, who served as president of the Film Jury at Cannes, meanwhile declined to comment on the matter, and U.S. Jury representative Susan Credle, exec VP-executive creative director at BBDO, New York, did not return calls.